Family Court Services in Kalispell, MTMarybeth Sampsel
If you are involved in a particularly complex parenting case in Flathead County or know someone who has, you may have heard of Family Court Services. Much like a guardian ad litem (see my previous posts regarding GALs in divorce cases), Family Court Services is vested with the authority to investigate, report to the Court and make recommendations about parenting. Though Family Court Services is often confused with the Department of Family Services, the two are entirely different. While DFS might be involved in an abuse and neglect case, Family Court Services is strictly involved in cases regarding parenting disputes.
Think of it this way: in a parenting case, there is only so much a judge can do. A judge can’t visit your house, see what is in your cupboards or where your child sleeps. Generally, a judge will never meet your child or see you or your ex-significant other interact with your child. The law expects a Judge to make a decision about the parenting of a child they, frankly, know very little about.
Family Court Services (FCS) allows the Judge to be more informed about a case. FCS can “investigate” a case by meeting with the parties, important witnesses (school teachers, grandparents, counselors, etc.), meeting the child in person, and visiting important places the child spends time (usually both parents’ homes). After that investigation, FCS reports to the Judge, giving far more information to a Judge than he or she would normally see during a hearing. This puts far more information at a judge’s fingertips, enabling he/she to make a more informed decision about parenting.
Though Family Court Services makes recommendations to the Court, a Judge has the power to accept or reject the recommendation. At times, a Judge might decide the FCS recommendation is great and put it into place. In other cases, a Judge may determine that the FCS report was only partially correct or not at all correct.
Family Court Services also has the authority to make interim recommendations pending further order of the court. For example, if there are alcohol/drug issues, FCS may recommend a party participate in random drug or alcohol screening. If there are abuse issues, FCS may recommend parenting time be supervised for a period of time. Because Family Court Services derives its authority from the District Court, parties have the option to have recommendations of FCS review by the judge in their case.
As a practical matter, FCS is largely funded by tax dollars. Unlike a private guardian ad litem (who is paid for by the parties), persons who become involved with FCS generally are not charged for FCS work. At times, FCS will make recommendations that do require payment (i.e. drug/alcohol testing, supervised visits, psychological evaluations, etc). As is the case with so many legal organizations, FCS funding seems to be drying up year after year. As such, FCS can only handle so many cases and our local judges refer cases there as judiciously as possible. FCS often gets only the most complex and litigious of parenting cases.
If you have additional questions about Family Court Services, contact an attorney to schedule an appointment. You can reach my office by calling (406)752-6373.